The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August and this is Episode 517 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today’s episode is a clip show. Now, for most of this program’s ten years on the air Craig and I have been largely feature writers, but we’ve been fortunate to bring on a lot of guests who are very smart about TV. So today we are going to hear from them.
We will start with Mindy Kaling. She’s talking about her experience joining the writer’s room of The Office and what she brought from that experience to her shows The Mindy Project and Champions.
Then we’ll hear from Alison McDonald and Ryan Knighton with their advice for new staff writers.
Finally, we’ll meet up with Aline Brosh McKenna and Rachel Bloom to discuss later seasons of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, all this from a conversation we had with John Gatins.
And in our bonus segment for premium members I will be talking with Megana about some of the leftover questions from last week’s 10th Anniversary show. I will be back with you at the end for a little bit of wrap up. Enjoy.
John: So, you have written Matt and Ben. It’s gone great. And did you also do it in Los Angeles? How did more people discover it?
Mindy: Yeah, so then what happened with the play was it had enough people – off the success of the Fringe then like little producers in New York who they can do Off-Broadway plays, they put up money for that, put it up at PS122.
Mindy: Which is a great venue in Downtown New York. And we got more and more people. And that was when – when it was PS122 that’s when like Steve Martin came to see it and Nicole Kidman came to see it. We got our photos taken with them afterwards. And it became like a hot ticket. And we would do it six or seven times a week. And then from that they’re like, you know what, this would probably do well in LA.
And so I was so excited to go to LA because I knew that my future as a comedy writer – at that point I knew I wanted to write for TV. I felt that it was in Los Angeles, not in New York. And so I was really excited to go out there. And we went out there – this is how – I’m actually amazed at myself sometimes, because I already had an Arrested Development spec I had written.
John: Amazing. So you watched the show and you just guessed on sort of what a script of that would look like? Or had you read a script?
Mindy: So I had gone to the 67th Street Upper West Side Barnes and Noble and they have books on how to break into TV writing. So I bought like two books and they all said you need a spec script of a show. And then because this is like pre scripts being available online, I actually went in SoHo there’s this guy who sells TV scripts, printed out copies of TV scripts, on like a foldout table on Broome Street.
John: I’ve seen that guy. So you actually–
Mindy: Yeah. It was like Broome and Spring. He would set up his little – in a full circle moment I now like own an apartment in SoHo and I still see that same guy there selling his sitcoms and he has an episode of The Office that I wrote.
Mindy: I know. And I was like should I tell this guy? He’ll be like, “Fuck off, it’s not interesting to me. Who cares?” But I was like my full circle moment! You’re part of it, sir. Yeah, so I got a copy of Arrested Development. And so I literally I was just like I don’t know about act breaks. I don’t know how long the script should be. I have a sense of it just from watching it on DVDs. So while we were doing Matt and Ben at night in New York, because I knew we were going to go to LA at that point. We had like two months before we were going to go. So I was like, OK, I have a couple of ideas for this. So I got an Arrested Development script ready to go. So, I had that when we went to LA.
John: None of what you described so far sounds like luck. All of it sort of sounds like hard work.
Mindy: Thank you. You know, I’ve often – like you know, I think that hard work is two different things. Because like hard work is like, in America at least, it’s like good to be hard-working. But often it’s cool, particularly from some of my WASP-ier friends who maybe worked on the Lampoon where like you’re not supposed to show how ambitious you are. It’s just there’s such a bad look. And I’m like, well, if that’s true then I’m like living a perpetual bad look because I am like nothing without my panic fear, hard work like cycle that I go through.
But, yeah, thank you. I don’t think I had any luck either.
Mindy: I mean, I definitely had supportive parents. And I went to a great school. So it’s not that – I had luck being born into a nice family who had enough money to send me to an Ivy League school for sure. But–
John: But to describe back a few things, you were talking about the panic and rather than just dwelling on the panic you actually started talking through stuff with a friend. You walked around. You recognized that this thing that you’re actually describing could actually be a good thing. You did the work to actually write that thing. And then the work to actually figure out a way that people could see this thing. And see that it was good. And while you’re having success, you didn’t take that, OK I’m going to stop here. You’re like I’m going to work extra hard to write the thing that will get me to the next place.
And so many people I think along the way they get to this thing and they’re like, “OK, when will lightning strike more? When are people going to notice me more?” And they’re not doing the thing to actually get them to the next place.
Mindy: Well it’s exhausting, right? Because that’s how you – just to keep going, it’s like you can never just sort of sit and be content for too long. It’s like constantly churning, especially as a writer, and particularly if you’re creating your own work it’s just a constant thing. But luckily I have enough panic for many lifetimes. So I think I’ll be OK.
John: So you come out to Los Angeles and you’re doing the play and you’re also meeting folks?
Mindy: So I’m doing the play. The play is going like spectacularly badly.
John: Was it at the Hudson? Where were you doing it?
Mindy: It was going so badly. It was at the Acme Theater on La Brea, which I think is still there. It’s going so spectacularly badly. Horrible. It’s like this is so not a theater town.
John: I remember reading a review of it in Variety which I think was a good review.
Mindy: Oh really?
John: But I remember actually seeing the physical, because I had the printed Variety at that point, and I remember seeing–
Mindy: Oh really?
John: The first time seeing a review of it.
Mindy: Oh my god. It was horrible. It was horrible, horrible, horrible. And there’s just something, in New York, because I like the play and I think it’s a funny play, and I think the performances are great. Not my performance. My friend. I just thought it was a good play. It was worthy of – I believed in it. Anyway.
And I think that in New York there’s just much more of a feeling of these little rinky-dink plays with something special in them. They have little venues. It’s like you can go on a date. Or you could do whatever. And it felt like here if you brought someone to go see a play in LA you were like “This is the worst date of my life. What are you, poor? Why can’t you take me to something nice?”
And so it just had a very different feeling about it here. So it went terribly and I, again, I was really panicked about that. But because of my spec script our agent, who started representing us when we went Off-Broadway, for writing was – I was taking meetings to staff on things. And actually that was going really badly, too.
John: And why badly? Because they would have already read you before you’d gone in. So, did you–?
Mindy: I can’t even, I just want to say, I can’t emphasize how much there was not this feeling of wouldn’t it be great to have writers in a writer’s room that don’t look like everybody else. It truly was like that wasn’t a thing at all back then. And I felt that it was – I had done this play. I had an Arrested Development spec. I really wanted to get into – I thought Will and Grace is such a great show. Couldn’t get a meeting on Will and Grace. Couldn’t get a meeting on – at that time it was Father of the Pride, was that animated show that was going to be after the Olympics. Couldn’t get into that room.
Couldn’t get a meeting with any of those people. But now if I think about it like an Indian-American girl who had like written a play that won the Fringe Festival who would come out to LA who had written a spec, like I’d be like of course I would take a meeting with that person. But things have just changed now, or maybe because I am Indian, where every showrunner would be like well of course you’d meet that person.
It seems like what a great person to put on your show. But it wasn’t that.
Or maybe my material just wasn’t good enough. But the doors were just completely slammed shut except for Greg Daniels who had seen my play with his wife Susanne and they–
John: Susanne Daniels at that point was running the WB Network.
Mindy: WB. Yeah. Or, you know, I think she just left the WB and was now an independent producer. But so Greg and she had seen the show and Greg wanted to – Greg and I met for The Office, which wasn’t a thing yet, and when I had my meeting with him I hadn’t even seen the original Office. I hadn’t even heard of it.
And so met with me. We had a really long meeting, which I thought went terribly. And then after he hired me as a staff writer for six episodes first season. NBC so did not believe in this show at that time. But I didn’t – it was not a job that anyone who wanted to be a comedy writer would have signed up for. Because who would sign for six episodes when you could do a 22-episode fifth season of an existing show?
John: So a general rule, I think long meetings are good. Has that been your experience since that time? Are most long meetings good meetings?
Mindy: Yeah, you know, at the time I had no idea. It was maybe my second or third meeting that I’d had. Yeah, I think long meetings are good. You’re totally right. Long meetings are good.
Greg, if you have ever met him, is someone who is completely comfortable with like long pauses and silences. He’s a very reflective person who can be thinking about something and you’re just sitting there nervous. It wasn’t like a chatty fun, “Oh I know that person, too,” like one of those kinds of meetings. He is just a – he will not just be like chattering away if he doesn’t think it’s worth saying, whereas I’m the opposite. I’m as my mom calls me a talkie-talkie, say-nothing. So I’m like blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And he was not. But I remember leaving thinking like oh my god if I could work for that guy. He’s so fucking smart. And I was at the King of the Hill offices because he was I think working on The Office while he was doing King of the Hill. So, it was very intimidating.
John: And when you were hired on did you know that you were going to be a performer as well? Or were you just hired on to write?
Mindy: I didn’t – I just thought I was going to be a writer. I didn’t know that there was a clause in there which is as a performer there was a pre-negotiated thing. And I think my agent so thought that was not a possibility that we didn’t even talk about it.
And it didn’t occur to me that being on a sitcom that was only picked up for six episodes was something to worry about. Or that there was something better than that. I think that looking back it was of all my professional success being hired on The Office was probably the most exhilarating.
John: Yeah. Because suddenly you really are being paid to do the thing that you want to be doing.
Mindy: Really getting paid.
John: Drew Goddard was on the show and we were talking about some of those early jobs, some of the best early jobs are sort of the underdog jobs or sort of the long shots, or shows that are kind of in trouble, or no one is really paying attention, because then as the new person in you sort of can just do new stuff. And The Office was really, even though it was based on an existing format, was really breaking sort of new weird spaces.
Mindy: That’s such a good point. That’s such a good point. I think that Drew was correct. Drew Goddard is smart for a reason. He’s successful for a reason.
John: He’s a very smart person.
John: Because he was talking about sort of early on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and when things were just in chaos that’s a really great time to come onboard because they’re open to sort of new ideas. And you’re there while they’re figuring stuff out.
Mindy: Did you see the documentary about the Dana Carvey show?
John: No. I haven’t.
Mindy: OK. So it’s a great, great documentary about how could this go wrong, because the writing staff I’m sure you know was like Colbert, Carell, Charlie Kaufman, Robert Carlock. It was just like, Dana. So it has huge – and of course Dana Carvey was the star at the height of his powers. And it had this hugely talented staff, of all white men, but it did terribly and it got canceled I think in its first season or only lasted one season.
And it was so fascinating because here’s like how did that not go well? And I think maybe because there was so much scrutiny on it. Where everyone was like we can’t wait to see – they’re rubbing their hands together – we can’t wait to see what Dana Carvey does. And it was, probably because there was just so much scrutiny.
The Office was the opposite of that, which was I think that – I don’t want to speak out of turn here, because Greg knows better than me. I was like a staff writer so I truly didn’t know what was going on that much. But my sense of it was that The Office was like, “OK, six episodes, like let’s just let this run its course.” And frankly our first season we did terribly. I still love those first season episodes. I think they’re so funny, but I also think I was particularly attached to them because it was my first experience writing in TV. It was just completely intoxicating and it was such a small room. And I was like, “Oh, Mike Schur is so cool and mean. And B.J. Novak is so cool and mean. And everyone is so cool and mean. I hope they become my friends.” And it felt like we were just doing like such – by the way, now they’re going to be like, “Why’d you say I was cool and mean on the podcast?”
I was going to say they’re both very nice, which is also not true, but they’re both perfectly nice and have since become my good friends. But I just remember being like I’d never been around this level of concentrated comedy, of people who just like knew what they were doing. And I was just trying to keep up.
John: So talk to me about know what you’re doing, because I’ve never written half-hour and I don’t really have a good sense of what the process is like in the room and I’m sure it’s different for certain shows than other shows. But as you guys are breaking an episode, so you have a general sense of the ideas of the episode or the big things that are happening. How many days are you there figuring out, OK, this is the episode before someone goes off and writes it? The Office or your later shows.
Mindy: The Office or later shows. Well, I just took the way that we had done things at The Office and brought that onto The Mindy Project. And I did it at Champions. And then now at Four Weddings and a Funeral. We just do things the same way. And the way that we did it – the way that Greg did it – was that we would kind of blue sky or talk about the entire series for several weeks, maybe two weeks. And sort of like we would take a couple days and talk about each character and what made them funny. What was their wound? How would they react in different situations? Their backstory. And that’s when, those first couple weeks is when you figure out like, OK, Dwight Schrute has a beet farm. That kind of thing. Michael Scott, you know, he talks about his mother and his step-father but we never really know about his dad. I don’t know how far we got with it.
But we just – and then we just went through all the main characters on the show and did that.
John: And at this point had a pilot script been written? Or this was before the pilot script was written? Because it was kind of a special case on The Office right?
Mindy: Yeah, well no, Greg adapted the pilot. They had already shot the pilot, when I came onboard. So then when they’re hiring a staff that’s when like Mike, me, Paul Lieberstein, that we came onboard. And B.J. was in the pilot, but he was in the writer’s room as well. So we had this small room. And so then after the second week of talking kind of blue sky about the characters then it was like, OK, we have these six episodes, let’s like go – one of them is already written, so we have five episodes. What would be great or funny things? And that was all like well above my pay grade. That was kind of Greg deciding what he wanted to do. And then us pitching jokes on how that could be funny, or twists and turns in the story.
John: So what’s happening in the room, are you pitching jokes like actual dialogue jokes? Or are you pitching conflicts or little bits of like this scene would work like this? How much to dialogue are you getting into in the room?
Mindy: In the room?
John: Before someone goes off and writes the script?
Mindy: I think at The Office the first season it would be, like if Greg or Paul Lieberstein who were like the co-EPs and EPs on the show, if they had like a turn of phrase or a piece of dialogue that they thought Michael could say, or Dwight would say, then that would go into the script. I mean, I don’t really know how many even usable bits of dialogue or jokes I even contributed. But not that much. In later shows, like what we did at The Mindy Project, which has a completely different rhythm. Because what happened at Mindy was – it was a couple Office writers, but not that many because they were all still working on The Office. Because my first season of Mindy was the last season of The Office. So those guys were still employed. Actually, I don’t know if I had any Office writers my first season. I don’t think I did. I had a couple 30 Rock writers. A couple Simpsons writers. And then the other writers – I’m sorry, one Simpsons writer, and then everyone else was from late night TV, from like Jimmy Fallon and Colbert.
So, the style of that show was very different from The Office for a lot of reasons. It wasn’t a mockumentary. But the joke rhythm became a little bit more – The Office has tons of jokes, but it was more of a hybrid. It had a real like more 30 Rock/Simpsons joke dense type of show. And that became a show where there was a lot of dialogue in the outline, because I was in the room, and I was the lead. So it felt like, OK, if I said something and it made people laugh, or I liked it, it would just stay in the final script.
John: So, Rachel Bloom, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, she has a similar situation like you have on Mindy Project where she’s in the room for breaking the stories and sort of figuring stuff out, but then she’s ultimately the star of the show and has to go off and be the star of the show. Something like Mindy Project, how did you split your time between “I am the showrunner” and “I’m also the star of the show?” How were you switching back and forth between those roles?
Mindy: It was incredibly time-consumptive, particularly when we were at Fox. It was just a real seven day a week job. So I would go to work, my call time would be like 5 or 5:30. We’d do that first season thing where on a show you do like 13 hour days.
John: And why the first season? What’s different?
Mindy: Because on the first season scripts are longer because you’re not sure what’s going to work and what’s not going to work. So you need to just shoot longer things. And you don’t know yet. The characters, you don’t know who they are yet. So things are a little bit overwritten. And by the end of Mindy we were doing I think 11 hour days, which was great. But at the beginning it was like 13 or 14 hour days. And then I would come and then once if there was a lighting setup at Universal our writer’s room was really just like across the way, so really close. There’s a lighting setup for 45 minutes, I would go to the writer’s room and check in, see what they were working on. And then I would go back over and just do that.
And then when I wrapped at night, 6 or 7, I would edit to about 10, then go home.
Mindy: So it was tough. And then on the weekends I would just go over my lines for the next week, but then also on Saturday probably go into post. So the thing that gets really kind of held back is post. Because they can’t cut an episode without me. The director will do a director’s cut, but they can’t really do that final pass without me there. So on Saturdays I’d be there for like four or five hours doing that. But, it was a lot of time, but it was also like I wasn’t married and didn’t have kids. It was my only goal in life was to have my own TV show. So, for me, it was like, eh, this is fun.
John: Your life is being inside the show.
Mindy: Yeah. My life is being on the show, so it was fine.
John: The one TV show that I did show run, I did find myself, like I would go through life and everything was just being sorted into two bins. Is that part of the show? Is that not part of the show? A song will play on the radio. Could that in the show? I felt like I was just constantly grabbing at things out in the real world and trying to put them in my little basket.
Mindy: It’s fun though isn’t it?
John: It is sort of fun. Anything that can happen out there you’re like, oh, this could be a thing. But I found myself, there was like a little red light that would come one. If we’re having this conversation it’s like, oh this kind of conversation could be in the show, which is – I’m not sure it was actually emotionally very healthy to do that.
Mindy: Oh interesting. You know, my character was so out there and it was all dating stories and I wasn’t dating at all, so I didn’t get a lot of that. But I would see would be like, “Oh, my assistant loves Workaholics.” I’m like, “Oh, that guy Anders Holm, they love him.” And like, “Oh, he should be a boyfriend on the show” and then he would be.
Or I would see Seth Rogan at an event and be like, “Oh, Seth should be on the show.” That’s fun to just find actors. And for a serial dating show it’s really fun to be like, oh, this guy is big on a Broadway play. And when you have a show, a TV show for theater people is actually like kind of fun and glamorous for them to come be on a TV show. Or Mark and Jay Duplass, I met them–
John: Oh my god, they’re great.
Mindy: They’re great. And they set a meeting with me because they wanted me to like either be in or – it was for me to be in a movie that they were going to produce. And nothing happened with the movie, but after meeting both of them I was like, oh, I want them to be on the show. And then they became the midwife brothers on the show. I only did this because Jay Duplass has said this many, many times that he credits me with kicking off his acting career, because he had never acted before then. And so that always fills me with pride.
John: They have such a weird Penn and Teller vibe as those characters. It was so disturbing.
Mindy: Penn and Teller vibe. That’s so funny. Yeah, that was – I always loved when those guys could come be on the show. They were so funny.
John: So, as you’re learning your lines over the weekend though, if there’s something you’re like, “Oh, this isn’t really working for me right,” could you just rewrite your lines?
Mindy: I could rewrite it. So in some ways it’s easy. It’s easier when the star of the show is also the showrunner, because it’s not one of these things where you’re like I hope, you cross your fingers and hope at the table read that the lead likes it/gets the joke. It made rewrites easier because for the most part I like knew what was going to happen. And so when we would rewrite things, we’d have to rewrite me a little bit, but it was mostly the other characters.
What became hard was that, at least when we were at Fox, it was like the notes we would get would be just – like that would keep us there for overnight Sundays/Saturdays. Because we would hear something and be like, “Oh, they don’t like this one character.” And you’re like, “OK, so we’ll write them off in a fun, believable way.” And they’re like, “No, they can’t be in the next episode.” So, you would say like you want us to get rid of that character without a sendoff? They’re like, yeah, they just – I don’t want to say the person I’m talking about, but they just don’t want to see them again.
And so we would get knocked a lot because there was a lot of characters that we were kind of – the edict was to just not see them again. And who would believe that the head of a network or development execs at a network would just say, “Yeah, they just can’t be in the next one. Our boss is going to freak out.” That that would actually be the case. So it just looks like, oh, Mindy didn’t like that person and wanted them off the show. And most of the time you’re like I hired this person. I would never want them to just to be off the show in this kind of way. It makes no sense.
John: So again, and we won’t talk about specific actors, but having watched I think almost every episode of your show, there were best friend characters or other friends. And so Mindy would have friends sometimes and not friends other times. And there was probably a focus question of like is this a work show or is this a Mindy’s home life show? Is that the kind of stuff that would come up?
Mindy: Well, you know, it was interesting. It was two things. If you look at 30 Rock or Parks and Rec, like Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope have no girlfriends accept for the people that they work with. And at the beginning of my show I was like, oh, it would be great if she had – I mean, I love Sex and the City. I would love for her to have girlfriends. But what ended up happening is we were at work so much, so you would end up having this thing of like how do we get the best friend at work.
For the record, I really loved having that – I liked that challenge. And we’ve always had great actors who would play my friends on the show. And then what would happen was that the network would say, “That stuff isn’t working. Cut it. We don’t want to see them.” But what it always felt like, and you have these fights where you’re like I don’t think people necessarily understand this when they watch a show. You have these fights of like I don’t want to do that. I want to write them a sendoff or I want to keep doing that. And it’s just like, “Do you want your show to continue on the air? No.” You have to like – and so you learn like, oh, things don’t work the way where you know it’s going to be better creatively.
And so I don’t know that other streaming platforms or cable networks don’t do that the same way, but I think there’s a reason why the comedies that most people are really enjoying are not on networks. Because I think that there’s these panicky edicts to get rid of things or change things up that make sometimes shows not work at the beginning. So we were so lucky we came back after there was – I liked so much of the first season, but it was so rocky. Like some inconsistency, particularly the first 13 episodes where it was like this feels a little bit out of control. That kind of evened out in later seasons.
John: I don’t think this is true of your show, but there have been definitely shows I’ve seen the first season where it was clear they aired them out of order, or they just rejiggered the plan. Because a character is introduced in episode five but they actually showed up in episode three. It’s always so weird as the viewer to see–
Mindy: Well, they fall in love with an episode and they’re like, “Ooh, we want to air this now.” And I’m like a character has a broken arm in this episode that doesn’t have a broken arm in the previous one or something. It just doesn’t make any sense. And sometimes it’s coming from a good place. And it’s always a development exec who is just like, “We want to save the show. So we want to put the very best one next.” And you’re like “But it doesn’t make any sense.”
So, often it’s really coming from people who are, because there were so many big champions of our show at Fox. And a lot of times they’re like, “But we think this will help keep the show on the air and isn’t that the whole point?” So then you would do something, because yeah, I don’t want to have a six-episode show of a show that I really believed in that I didn’t make any compromises at all. And ultimately it was worth it that first – it was even just the first 13 episodes. Because at the end when we were in like Season 6 at Hulu they were like, hey, do you want to come back and do another season? And at that point I hadn’t realized like, oh, that’s such a rare thing, because I had gone from The Office to then Hulu, which was like you want to keep doing it? And Craig Erwich is such a feeling of supporting it. It was like, yeah, you can do it as long as you wanted. And I was like, no. I was like, no, I want to go be in like A Wrinkle in Time and Ocean’s 8 and go do movies for a while. Being like, oh yeah, that will be done in like a year. But it is nice to see what other kind of characters I can play.
John: Can we talk about Champions, because I tweeted at you because I loved Champions so much.
Mindy: Oh, thank you. I loved it, too.
John: I was really impressed by the pilot because I’ve never written a half-hour pilot, but sort of the density of what a half-hour pilot has to do in terms of establishing the premise, the characters, the unique voices for the characters. I felt like every line in that pilot had to do like five jobs in terms of establishing these guys are brothers, they own this gym, their father died. He had a kid by this woman he hasn’t seen all this time. Now she’s dropping— It was such a–
Mindy: It was so dense with plot and things.
John: It was like a full two-hour movie that had to be crammed into this little 30-minute thing, but it felt – everything was just nipped and tucked just so delightfully.
Mindy: Oh, thank you. That’s so nice.
John: So it was you and Charlie–
Mindy: Charlie Grandy.
John: And so what was the genesis of that pilot?
Mindy: I think with Charlie and I, because we had worked together for so long on so many different shows, I wanted to do – because I came to him with the idea. I think we both – we wanted to do something different than Mindy, but I wanted to do a young gay character. And I wanted to write for a guy. Because I’d been writing for Mindy for so long. It’s crazy, because J.J. Totah who played the lead in that show–
John: He’s just remarkable.
Mindy: He’s so remarkable. But we didn’t know he existed before we wrote that part. So we wrote this really specific part of a half-Indian like very theatrical confident but with some vulnerabilities, this character, which is so specific. And then we found this young kid who played the part completely, but it was one of those things when we were auditioning we were like what the hell did we do? It’s not just a young teenage kid that’s a great actor, and singer, and dancer, which is already so hard to find. We’re like he has to be half-Indian, or look half-Indian. So that was incredible.
And writing for that voice was really fun because I love characters who want to come to New York and be strivers and are chatty and enter a room and they kind of like download their entire deal. And so he was like Mindy in some ways, but he had this vulnerability because he didn’t have a dad. So it was a really, really fun show to work on.
John: The other character I thought you had a great original voice for was the Andy Favreau character whose name I don’t remember. Dim-witted, but in a very different kind of dim-witted than I usually see in these shows. He was so good-natured and Canadian in sort of an odd way. And that brotherly dynamic is a thing we don’t– Mindy: That’s funny. Matthew. Andy is so funny. And Matthew was just like, yeah, in some ways he could have seen just kind of stock, but he was smart about certain things and he was super moral. And also like really ambitious about the gym. And I remember he would always talk about like we thought it was really fun that he thought the most important familial relationship was between uncle and nephew. He’s like that’s the most valuable relationship. He didn’t really come alive until he discovered he had a nephew. That really fulfilled him. He was just a really sweet, funny character. And I mean Andy was so funny playing that part.
John: So writing with Charlie on this pilot, what is the process and what’s the give and take of figuring out like who wants what and sort of who is responsible for what?
Mindy: I love writing with another person. That was kind of the first time since I’d written Matt and Ben that I’d written with a writing partner. And what was great about writing with Charlie was I was shooting Ocean’s 8 at the time in New York and he was in LA. So we spent two or three months meeting, because Mindy was still happening. So we would meet on the weekend and then before work.
So we broke the story and carded it onto a board. And then what we did was – I think this is what we did. I took the blue cards and he took the red cards. And we just outlined it. We wrote what each scene would kind of be. I moved to New York. We’re in the middle of our outline. We had our respective assistants. Mine was in New York and his was in LA. Like Frankenstein them together, the cards. And then we had this kind of rough document that didn’t – it made sense, but it was tonally all totally different and all over the place. And you got to see like, oh, he really like sparked to this aspect of this guy’s character and I sparked to this. And you learn a lot. And it’s so much fun.
And then what we did was we massaged the document tonally into one thing. He would do a pass on it, and then I would do a pass on his pass. And so we had this outline which we then submitted–
John: How many pages long was this kind of outline?
Mindy: So, towards the end of Mindy we started doing really long outlines that were really detailed because it took the edge off of that horrible feeling you have of a blank page when you’re writing a script. So our outlines were often like 27 pages long.
John: Oh wow.
Mindy: And a script is like 32 pages.
John: So suggesting the dialogue but not really having blocked out?
Mindy: Sometimes we would write the dialogue to begin with. But it was like a Microsoft Word document. And then what’s great is then we would just when you put the Microsoft Word outline that has dialogue but just like in block form and you put that into a Final Draft document you’re like, “This script is like written.” It’s like 31 pages already.
And then that to me always makes me feel better. And the great thing about breaking everything together to that level of detail is that when you’re looking over it with your writing partner you’re like, “Oh, I kind of think that they shouldn’t make this decision and this beat should be two beats later.” So that when you’re actually writing the script it’s kind of really fun. Because you’re fleshing out the thing that’s already been really, really established. You can’t mess up. You can just make it better.
That’s something that we kind of figured out at The Mindy Project which is why when we were at Hulu it just made everything so efficient and no writer came in with a draft that was like bad because we had done so much room work on the actual outline.
John: Cool. Now, you’re in the room right now. What are you working on?
Mindy: I’m working on a miniseries, a ten-episode miniseries that’s an adaptation of the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral.
John: Holy cow. That feels exactly in your wheelhouse.
Mindy: Yeah. Well, you know, Richard Curtis is such a genius and has such a distinct voice. And it wasn’t until I was adapting someone else’s distinct voice that I was like, “Oh, I think I have a distinct voice and it’s not the same as this person’s voice.” So it’s been interesting being like, well, people are really – if they wanted to watch Four Weddings and a Funeral as an adaptation into a miniseries what would that look like? And what did they want knowing that I’m doing it? So I’m trying to fulfill the promise of people who want to see that while also being like, OK, this is through the eyes of Mindy Kaling. And the biggest change that we made is the lead is an African American girl. And the male lead is a British Pakistani man. And so already I’m like, OK, I feel like I can get onboard with these two leads.
John: And so right now are you just blue-skying, or you’re breaking episodes? What happens in this part of the room?
Mindy: We just finished blue-skying which is the most fun period of preproduction and now we’re going into breaking the first episode. I mean, the first episode is actually written, so we’re doing episode two, which is a little bit harder. Less fun.
John: And so I want to get into this and I want to sort of talk through the process of getting on a show and sort of what it’s like to be writing on a show versus writing features independently, because Alison you’ve written independently, too. So I want to compare and contrast those two and really dig into it, because I’ve had no experience writing on the staff of a show.
Ryan: Oh really?
John: I’m literally just going to ask you questions. And not knowing very much about what it was like I went out to Twitter and I had a bunch of people tweet in their questions for you guys about sort of what it’s like to be a TV staff writer.
Ryan: Oh cool.
John: So, Alison, it’s been a while since you’ve been a staff writer, but can you time travel back and talk us through getting that first job writing on television, and how you got the job and sort of what it’s like that first, those first few days, that first week getting settled.
Alison: Oh boy. It’s a triggering question. But I do – I want to preface what my response is by saying that if you polled a hundred different writers with this question you might get anywhere from 25 to 99 different responses. So, this was my experience.
I am somewhat unique in that I did not set out to have a career in television. I went to film school wanting to write and direct independent films. And then the bottom fell out of indie features. There just was not a career to be had in them. So it was both necessity and somewhat fortuitous that I fell into my first TV job. So that’s the preface.
I was newly out of film school and had worked as an intern at Jim Jarmusch’s office in New York. It was a wonderful experience. And I met a UPM, a unit production manager for anyone who doesn’t know, who is essentially in charge of finances for production. That’s true in TV and in film. And she left her job with Jim, the production ended, and she went to work on a feature and offered me a job as a PA, which is a step up from an intern because you actually get “paid,” although I came to find out that she was paying the male PA more than she was paying me.
Alison: Yeah. Lots – have me back on, John. So at any rate, so I was working that job initially as a PA and was bumped up to production secretary at some point. And then our production offices moved to Kaufman Astoria, so all this was in New York. And next door to us the Whoopi Goldberg sitcom was starting to set up their production. So this was before the writers were actually there. Most of the writers, I think perhaps all them except for the Turners, were Los Angeles based. So the room wasn’t up and running yet, but their UPM was setting up the offices and starting to hire local crew.
So I just walked down the hall one day, poked my head in his office, and said, hey, if you need a writer, you know, in that way that speaks of one’s naïveté but also you have to be ambitious and why not. And I had, again, just being out of film school I had written and directed two shorts that had gotten some attention on the festival circuit and also had some writing samples. So I was armed and prepared and that’s the best piece of advice that one can give anyone, because nothing else is in your control. And he explained to me the way writers’ rooms are staffed and how writers have long since been hired, the point of which the UPM is setting up an office, but he was very kind and said, “Leave me your card and I’ll let you know if any positions open up, specifically like a writer’s assistant.”
So I went back to my office and asked the other PA who was in the office at the time “What’s a writer’s assistant?” because obviously if you aren’t in this world and you aren’t introduced to the various levels of support staff that these shows have you have no idea. I mean, even if intuitively you know, OK, this is someone who assists the writers, in what way? And it affords one very close proximity to the process. And there’s no greater apprenticeship than that job. So at any rate, long story short, I was ultimately hired as the writer’s researcher for that show.
John: So not quite an assistant, but you’re in the mix.
Alison: Do you know what’s interesting about it, I don’t know that those jobs exist on most shows. Whoopi wanted someone who could keep an eye on topical subjects for the show to explore. And that’s what landed in my lap. So I was only too happy to do that. So I didn’t have the administrative tasks of a writer’s assistant, i.e. you’re being the court reporter and you’re typing down contemporaneously what everyone is saying, and then having to cull all of those notes at the end of the session. I was just working autonomously and, again, you try and observe what’s happening in this room around you, and I saw, OK, I’m not in the room with writers the way the writer’s assistants are, so I don’t have the proximity. But they can read my writing. So I was going through the newspapers on a daily basis and culling things that I thought might be topical, you know, appropriate for the show, but then also writing a paragraph, no longer than a paragraph, satirical take on what that particular story was.
Ryan: That’s a cool job.
Alison: You know, and it’s one that I was able to craft on my own. Nobody said this is what we’re expecting. It’s just give us some news stories. So the idea popped into my head to attack the task this way, which if you could look at through jaundiced eyes, so it feels like a menial task, you’re just cutting and pasting newspaper stories, but make it an opportunity. Do it with purpose. So, what came to pass is that more writers would approach me and say they thought today’s edition was really funny. I got other people – they were passing this around, so other people in the production would request me to put them on the distribution list. And eventually caught the attention of Whoopi’s producing partner who once the show got its back nine recommended me for a writer’s gig. So I actually moved up the ladder faster than any of the other writer’s assistants.
John: So were you given one of the freelance gigs or what was it?
Alison: The way that happened is there are two options and they went with option A was to make me a staff writer as opposed to just paying me for a freelance script. So I was on staff. I did wind up getting a script. But it was more satisfying, because then I was in the room and I became a colleague. The funny coda to that story – and this is something you wouldn’t know if you were entrenched in the culture – is that in writers’ rooms typically the upper level writers tip their assistants. So the showrunner tips his or her assistant and then all of the writers combine, and it’s all based on seniority, so depending on how big a wig you are.
John: Tip? What do you mean?
Alison: So the way one would a server in a restaurant. Just a service tip, you know, because it’s Hollywood and everyone loves to give gifts. And these jobs don’t pay well, so let me state that. So, as part of the support staff I was tipped, and then suddenly I’m now in the room working with them and it’s like I hope you all don’t want your money back. I had bills to pay.
John: So you were in your early 20s or how old?
Alison: Yeah. And we’ll circle back around and Ryan can give his experience, but being fresh out of film school I was not prepared to read the room the way I was even a year later. It’s like, oh, this isn’t a free for all. This is actually a highly choreographed exercise in controlling chaos, to distill it into something that you can put on the air a week from now. So, again, coming from a classroom environment where there is a free exchange of ideas was both good preparation, because when you’re on a film set you learn the art and skill of collaborating, but also poor preparation into think that everyone on staff is encouraged to speak with equal volume.
John: Yeah. I want to get back to that because that’s a crucial thing I’ve always heard about TV writers’ rooms. So, your experience, while unique, was also kind of typical in that you got hired on as a very low level entry level job. You proved your merit. You proved that you were someone worth watching. And you got tapped on the shoulder to come into the room and become a staff writer.
Now, Ryan, your experience, you’re not a young woman in your 20s.
Ryan: I’m 85.
John: You’re 85 years old. And you’re a feature writer. But I would say actually a considerable number of feature writers are also writing TV now. So I think your experience is probably not going to be as atypical as a person who has mostly written features who after writing a bunch of features is now being brought into a room and having to adjust to that whole experience.
So, can you talk us through your early days, sort of entering into a writers’ rooms and sort of what your expectations were and what you were actually doing once you were there?
Ryan: Well, I mean, I came in as a bit of a spy. You know, I was actually in Portland doing a speaking gig and my agent called me and said that there was this show and the main character is a blind woman and Michael Showalter had shot the pilot and Corinne Kingsbury had written it and it was great and it was funny and it was very much my tone. Is it kind of too on the nose for me to want to do a show with a blind character? And we hadn’t talked about me staffing on a show before. And the reason I did it in part was because I had a number of pilots in development elsewhere I thought I should really get inside a room and just be in one for a while and see how they really work and what works in them and what doesn’t. So I kind of came in both to roll up my sleeves but also very selfishly to spy.
And when I walked in the showrunner is John Collier and he had been on Bones, and Monk, and Simpsons. And the first thing he said to me in the kitchen is a lot of feature writers get really disoriented when they get into a room. It will rewire your brain. And after 15 weeks it’s completely true. Like it’s just a completely true statement.
And like Alison just said, I did not know that it was such a militarized think tank. That there is a real structure and it’s a deep structure. And from the outside you would think it’s an expression of status, or something very superficial like that, but it is a way of funneling the chaos of ideas towards moving forward. So, it’s not arbitrary. It’s not done out of a sense of pride like I have more experience than you, etc. etc. There really is a rationale underneath it, because you have too many people with too many great ideas and you have to somehow create a substratum to organize them.
So, I walked in and I knew enough to just listen, which is kind of the first job is doing a lot of listening, and as they say read the room. And being a blind guy I had the disadvantage of not being able to read the room, so I was just sort of listening to like just geographically in the room where the talking was coming from. And if you do that you can kind of get a sense of the way the room is organized. Like more comes from over here, less from over here. Right?
And it was really interesting for the first few weeks for me because I’d never been in such a boiler room sort of environment of pitching. I mean, I’ve pitched a ton of stuff over the years, be it features or radio or books, whatever. So pitching isn’t new to me, but pitching in the speed and in a constructive way in the chaos of other people also pitching, so you’re building on top of them, and also having to think like as fast as you need to. That was really disorienting. But my favorite thing I discovered was I did not anticipate the level of memoir that goes into making a TV show. Like you get people in a room who ultimately at some point and at some level are drawing on their personal lives. And so you’re kind of in a collaborative memoir that is being repurposed as fiction. And so it’s pieces of people’s lives being stitched together into these Frankensteins. And I started as a writer doing memoir, like my first book was a memoir. So, after a couple weeks I found this really comfortable place where I’m like, oh, I remember what it was like doing this. You just tell people all you’ve ever done and that you think might be remotely interesting. And then somebody else puts a different head on it and somebody else puts wings on it and suddenly it flies and it’s not yours anymore.
So I found that whole experience really – like really interesting. And it requires a level of trust in the room, too, that you feel comfortable admitting things about yourselves because you don’t want to make characters that are saints as well, right?
Alison: That was so incredibly eloquent. That sounds like a place I want to be.
Alison: I want to engage in that experiment.
Ryan: You should try it. It’s called TV.
John: Now, Alison, you have the benefit you’ve been on multiple shows. So you’ve seen the whole range of how a show can work and how it can function. Probably some that function really well and some that do not function well at all. But for a person who is a new staff writer, what’s some general advice you can offer in terms of listening and then eventually speaking and how do you find the place and the time to speak up and to actually contribute something versus reading the room that Ryan was describing?
Alison: I would say that the best fallback position if you’re brand new to the room is to listen. To listen with the intensity that you would speak in other instances. And you may not know initially because every room is different, the way the personality of every showrunner can’t be boiled down to any one predominant trait except megalomania. But it will service you well in every room in which you ever enter, because even as I’ve made my way up – even as I’ve clawed my way up to the top I have not had the security that a lot of different TV writers have where you’re on The Office for seven seasons, or you know anyone of those shows, or like Frasier. I worked with a writer who had been on both Cheers and Frasier.
Alison: Right. So I can’t even imagine what kind of not just financial stability that gives you but also a level of comfort in knowing that your best ideas – your worst ideas rather won’t define you or limit you on a moment to moment or hour to hour or season to season basis. And that you have the freedom to make mistakes with impunity. That you just don’t have on a show that – you know, where you have to start over again every season.
But the ability to read the room and to be strategic about when you speak and what you say is crucial. And perhaps that serves you in every facet of show business and life. But a constant, and I’ve written on both comedies and dramas, and I would say that Ryan said this very, very succinctly. I won’t be as succinct because there are years of trauma attached to this advice.
Ryan: It’s my soft belly. It’s my soft belly that made me succinct.
Alison: You have no idea how much I envy your calm – none of this is triggering for you. But in a comedy room, for example, the pitching is fast and furious. And people are practically falling all over themselves to speak, but that doesn’t necessarily suggest aggression. It’s that, especially on a sitcom you just have to feed the beast of jokes, like there has to be a joke every two lines, every three or four lines. And so that kind of velocity certainly creates an environment that may feel like a mosh pit.
And on dramas there’s obviously a different, depending on the drama, like I’m on a legal thriller now, you may be pitching story arcs and it’s not that you don’t have to be able to pivot quickly, but pauses are encouraged. You know?
John: If there’s a silence that lasts 15 seconds that’s not the end of the world in a drama room. Whereas a comedy room that could feel different.
Alison: It’s almost death. It’s almost like unleashing a virus.
John: So I’m going to go to a question from Twitter. Michael Tull asked, “Which is better, to be able to come up with unique dialogue/stories on your own or to be able to go with the flow and have random bursts of input for other people’s ideas?”
So as a staff writer, which do you think serves you better? To be able to contribute in the room and to add on to things, or to be a person who can draft a whole idea and present it?
Ryan: You know, it’s interesting. From my observation anyway, I don’t know if that is – I don’t know if it’s an either/or question. In some ways one of the things that seems to make a room really work is the composition of the people in that room. So, you might have somebody who has a different skill set than somebody else. But there’s also this under sung value of a difference of personalities. There’s some people who are just great cheerleaders to keep things going forward when it feels pretty down. There’s some people that are just work horses, that just get up there and they hold the board together, and they’ve got the best handwriting in the world. So, you know, it’s not like there’s a very narrow bandwidth of skill set you can specialize in. I think the strength is to know what you can contribute and to see its contribution to the whole in the way that people are kind of arranged around that table and what they bring. And I have different skill sets, I think. And in this particular room it took me a few weeks to kind of figure out, oh, this is probably the best thing I can bring to the table because I can’t bring everything I want to. You know, there’s just not room to try and do everything. So, knowing what you can bring and how it would complement who is there is more I think valuable.
John: Alison, what’s your take on that?
Alison: I would concur 100%. And it changes from room to room. What the showrunner is doing at the outset of any room is assessing skill sets. She or he may have hired you thinking that your area of specialization was going to be X, but in this constellation of writers and experiences and levels you may be more useful doing Y. And the best example of this is comedy rooms, which they’ll often split into two. I once on a staff of 18 people. And they’ll often split into two for efficiency sake. You just can’t be in a room with 18 people pitching jokes. You really shouldn’t be in a room with 10 people pitching jokes. But one room will just be on story and the other room will just be the joke room, which I found to be no exit. Like I cannot stand it. Pitch one liners for six to eight hours every day.
Ryan: Comedy is such an unfunny business.
Alison: Oh god. Again, that’s another episode. But I was surprised, but depending on the room, depending on the show in question I was either in the joke room or in the story room. And it was just how that particular showrunner assessed my ability. And that goes back to the you need a full set of skills because any one of them may be called upon or required more in any particular room. And I think what most showrunners would probably say is that if you can get a couple of people who can give you really solid first drafts that’s invaluable. Because that’s where most of the time suck comes in having to rewrite. And the rewrite may not be because of anything you can necessarily control. Like you may get studio notes–
John: They blow up the episode.
Alison: Exactly. They blow up the script and suddenly it has to be rewritten in two days. That actually happened to me on my first Whoopi script. So somebody who can write quickly and write well quickly. You know, like in comedy rooms it’s almost like you can add the jokes later, you can add them on set, but structure you can’t piece together on a set. So, that skill set I think is certainly – help me out here, Ryan.
John: It’s important.
Ryan: It’s the thing.
Alison: That’s the brass ring. If you can do that. But again you may find that you’re better at doing that on a procedural than you are on a legal thriller. But I think to answer the person’s question, perhaps in a different way, is there’s no way to predict on a daily basis what you’re going to need to do in any given situation. So I think having an open mind and being courageous in that way, you know, if that doesn’t sound too precious.
Ryan: I could add, too, that part of it is, and I wasn’t really aware of this prior, and hadn’t really thought about it, was that as you go into production people start peeling away, right. So there might be a writer off on draft, there might be somebody out on outline, there’s somebody on set, there’s somebody in post. So the composition of the room isn’t stable either. It’s changing all the time.
So you might have had a particular role that you sort of fell into for a while, feeling it was your comfort zone, but as personalities in the room shift you might get called upon for other things that you didn’t do before.
I love it when people ask questions and you say the question is wrong. It’s the classic advice column move. But that’s just the nature of the beast I guess.
John: Let’s segue to a question from Victor Herman who is asking about that shift of the room. “Once an episode’s story is broken and a writer leaves the room for any number of days to write a script, what does it feel like to come back in the room now that the story has progressed without you? Are you vocal if there is something that’s happened that you don’t like?”
So, Alison, let’s pretend that you are off writing your script.
John: Now you come back in the room and they’re working on another episode. Things have changed. If you see something on the board or the episode is going in a way that you sense is going to be trouble do you speak up? How do you address that?
Ryan: You walk in the room and you’re like who is Victor? There’s these names on the board you don’t recognize.
Alison: Here’s a quick anecdote. I once was sent off on outline and got a call day two that the network had decided they didn’t want to kill off this character that I was killing off. Come back in the room. We have to rebreak the story.
John: Let’s clarify. So, to be off on outline means that you are writing the outline or you are writing the script?
Alison: It means that you’re writing the outline. Now, there are extraordinary circumstances where you’re writing both simultaneously. And that’s when, yes, the network has blown something up and you have to – there’s so many extraordinary circumstances that you talk to enough TV writers they’re like, oh yeah, that’s happened to me. Where just bureaucratically the network will demand an outline, even though the script has already been written. So you’re trying to distill a script into outline form. It’s ridiculous.
But I would say you always have to bear in mind the value of diplomacy. You’re off on script so you’re siloed and you’re focused on, you know, you have this myopic focus on the task at hand, these 28 to 55 pages, while the room is going on without you and they’re discovering other things about season arc and perhaps even series arc that you weren’t privy to. So they have information you don’t have. And you have information they don’t have because you’re discovering something about the character as you’re writing it. Jokes that weren’t pitched in the room or layers to the character that weren’t discussed in the room.
And depending on the room you may have a great deal of autonomy, or you may have very little. So I think if you come back into the room and something doesn’t jibe with you it’s just how do you go about farting in an enclosed space?
Ryan: That’s it. Next question.
Alison: I mean, depending on your dynamic with the showrunner it’s something you might want to have a sidebar on. And the showrunner can weigh in on I think that’s a valid concern, we’ll raise it in the room, or I hear what you’re saying but we’ve moved in this direction and I’ve called it. Like we’re heading on. And I’m sure that – this is something that does apply across all genres, across all rooms. You have to learn not to be precious of your writing. You won’t survive if you don’t.
And it’s actually a very good skill because even if you’re writing a play at some point someone is going to tell you that they can’t – this is impractical, we can’t get this set, or whatever it is and you have to adjust. But it’s constant adjustments in a writers’ room. So, if the showrunner has decided that they’re moving on from your idea, they’re moving on. And you need to let it go.
John: A question from Bob who asks, “How much is done or expected to be done at the office versus at home? So, are you working all the time? How long does it take to write an episode for a 30-minute show versus a 60-minute show?” Talk about the workload and how much of that work takes place over the course of ten to six or ten to whatever in the room versus not in the room. Ryan, what was your experience with work at the office versus work at home?
Ryan: I know it changes for every show, but you sort of get the schedule and the rhythm of the room pretty quick. And in our case we usually start at ten each morning. You know, your hope is to leave by 6:30 or seven. And often you don’t. Often you stay later. Just depending if the network blew something up or if you’ve fallen behind, whatever.
I would say the room can have a rhythm in the day where it’s like we’re all together at the beginning and sort of mapping out something large and then we might split into smaller rooms and somebody is doing episode eight and another one is doing episode nine. You’re running back and forth in between them because it’s a serialized show so you have to make sure everybody is speaking to each other and they’re not moving the story away from where it needs to be.
But workload wise, I mean the thing I found quite weird was how little I actually wrote for a long time. Like you’re really in a room talking a lot. And eventually you’ll go to outline. Eventually you’ll go to script. But that’s more the exception than the rule of your time. So, you’re in the room for the most part. You’re in there with people. It’s like you’re in the belly of the yellow submarine. And depending on your showrunner, when you go to outline or episode they may want you to stay around the office. And I can see advantages for that, especially if you’re doing a serialized show, because things might be changing and hot in the room and it might affect your episode so it’s good to be nearby so you can be pulled in, so you can integrate those changes.
You know, we might be on episode five and they’re shooting episode three and we need to do something in episode six that actually requires they change something back in episode three, so you might be tapping something that’s already almost going into production, just to make sure that something can be serviced further ahead in the story.
So, you know, it really depends on the show because in our case it’s sometimes helpful to be around the offices because it’s such a live worming show as far as the story and how it moves and shifts. But our showrunner has also been really great about if you want to write at home and you feel better and that’s good for your practice then go do it. And he’s cool with that. So we’ve been sort of given a lot of leeway that way. I like staying in the office just because I kind of like to keep my finger on the pulse.
Alison: I would add only that having been a number of different shows and shows that are very room reliant and shows that aren’t, one of the disciplines that I didn’t value way back when but I certainly do now is the ability to write anywhere. Whether it’s actually on set, where you’re rewriting jokes on a sitcom, or if you have to quickly do triage on a script that the network has blown apart, and you’re shooting these scenes the next day, so you’re absolutely going to be writing in an office, or in a production vehicle. The more you can test your ability to endure those extreme circumstances, the better off you’re going to be. Like how nice it is to sit home and write in your pajamas, all you screenwriters out there. John, I’m looking at you. For the most part you don’t have that option. I’m currently on a show where the showrunner will sometimes specify I’d like you to be around in the office should something change, or you know, it’s fine, go ahead and write at home. But I usually force myself to do half and half.
John: An important question from Gary Whitta who asks, “Sweats in the writers’ room? Acceptable?” So, it is different. As feature writers, I don’t have to get dressed. I can wear anything. But you are actually going into the presence of other people. So what are expectations for how you should dress in a room? Alison, in your experience what are the levels of dressed-up-ness in a writers’ room?
Alison: Comfort is key. I mean, I won’t be tongue and cheek with my response. Comfort is key. Because as Ryan said, depending on the room you may be there for eight to 14 hours. And I’ve seen it all in terms of attire. But writers on the whole, I think you’ll forgive me for generalizing, but are pretty casual folk. So, I worked with some dandies and that’s always a bit strange, but there is no code. I think that the strange thing about Hollywood, and surely you’ve found this even as a screenwriter, is writers tend to be the worst dressed. And agents the best. And then the network execs, you know, it’s like business casual for all of them. But agents definitely in pearls or suits and ties. But writers, yeah.
John: So Ryan Knighton, I see your dress code. It was already described as a red and black flannel. It’s the only time I think I’ve not seen you in a black t-shirt. That seems to be–
Ryan: That’s my uniform.
John: That is your uniform. So, can you offer any insights on the wardrobe of your–?
Ryan: Oh man, I’m a blind guy. I don’t know what they’re wearing in the room. I have no idea. They’re all naked for all I know. There are certain running jokes. And I’m sure he’ll be happy I say this. There’s an EP on our show who I just love. And he’s just a great veteran comedy writer. And he spent so many times eating lunch out of plastic takeout containers that he just refuses. So he has his plate and his fork and he does his dishes and he’s always dressed to the nines every day. And it’s just like he’s really committed to the idea. I’m here a lot. I’m just going to make it good. And apparently on a show he was on years ago people started people ribbing him about his fork and knife and his plate and all that kind of stuff. And eventually they noticed that he just kept adding to this. And so he brought a napkin. At a certain point he had a candle.
Alison: And a Ganymede to serve him.
Ryan: And I think that is just the best. And I think there’s something great about that variety in the room that everybody just sort of takes control of their own little micro environment of themselves.
Alison: I would say the one exception to the casual workwear code is on sitcoms where on show night if you’re always the person in a t-shirt and jeans you bring the sport coat. It’s a fun ritual, actually, because there’s an audience there and you’re filming a little half hour play so you dress up a little bit.
John: Brendon or Brian asks, “What’s for lunch? How early in the course of the day is the decision made about what the writing staff is going to eat for lunch?” And that is whole thing. And so even here, like Megan will run out and grab lunch for us sometimes. But it’s nothing like what the PA servicing a writers’ room is doing with like these giant lunch orders that are coming in. So talk to us about lunch. Ryan Knighton, this is your first time experience.
Ryan: I have so many thoughts about lunch. The thing about lunch, because I had heard about this before I came down, like it became sort of this weird cultural trope about the writers’ room and the lunch. And the thing I didn’t realize was it’s also because it’s like your own holiday moment in the day. It’s like the middle of the day. It’s the one moment where you sort of feel like you’ve stepped out of the room, even though you’re not in the room. So what you eat and sort of arranging that sacred time where you’re not on task is really important to people. And in our case the menu goes out the night before. So we actually get it the night before.
Alison: That’s so smart.
Ryan: Which is great. Because it’s on the table. It doesn’t take up time in the morning. And it’s not a big to do. The only difficulty is deciding at 11 o’clock at night what you want tomorrow. But I can live with it.
Alison: I just want to say to anyone whose impulse might be, oh, I can’t believe these spoiled Hollywood writers are complaining about a free meal, it’s not a free meal people. Like they feed you so that they can keep you in house. It’s to keep you close by.
Ryan: How about we just work while we’re eating.
Alison: That’s most rooms. And what’s become quite standard now is there is a very hard rule about budgets. So try and be in Los Angeles or New York and find a lunch that you can get for like $11.25. Again, we’re not talking pampering and flying in sushi from Alaska or something like that. But I would also say that Ryan is right. There can be cultural wars over lunch.
Ryan: Oh yeah.
Alison: There can be holy wars waged over lunch. I worked with this one guy who was so obsessive and even if someone is trying to institute like a democratic process, like each person in the room gets to pick, like I’ve been that writer. I was a staff writer on a show and not knowing LA I just looked at the menu of some place and said this is fine. And everybody complained about the lunch, so of course you feel like you’ve got the scarlet letter A.
But I’ve also been in rooms where as Ryan just said the showrunner likes to work through lunch, which is torture. And it’s not just torture because you don’t get that decompression in the middle of the day. It’s because you have to watch other people eat. And then the room just smells. You know, the more rooms that you’re in the more contemporaneous mental notes that you take, like I will never do this when I run a room, I will never do this. You have to give people lunch and you have to enforce the no eating in the room edict because it needs to be a pure space in all senses of the word, except for the fact that we’re writing television. But yes.
John: Let’s talk about money and sort of the financial aspect of it all. Two questions that came in. Daft Kid wrote, “Is the pay enough to live off in LA?” And then Anthony Kupo asked, “Please give us a ballpark on salary.”
So, it’s always awkward to talk about money, but I texted a friend who is on a network one-hour and he polled staff writers on a network one-hour. And they said that after taxes and agent, but not counting a manager, it’s roughly $2,200 per week for a 20-week guarantee. And so for a 20-week guarantee that’s $44,000, which seems good, but is a challenging amount. If that’s the only money you’re making for a year in Los Angeles that’s a challenging amount.
So, when you got brought on to be a staff writer on Whoopi’s show, that was probably – you were just out of college. That was really good money for you.
Alison: Yeah. It was more than I could count. And by the way I just finished paying off my film school loans six weeks ago.
John: Congratulations. That’s nice.
Ryan: Wow. Yeah.
Alison: Maybe it’s been eight weeks. I can’t believe that I don’t have hash marks on my arm. The amount of time and just the amount of mental space of that debt took up. But it did feel like a lot of money in that very naïve sense, because you’re just used to seeing a negative balance. But, you are talking about living in New York or Los Angeles and if that is the one job you have, like 20 weeks you work out of a 52-week year, then that has to stretch quite a long time. And you have no idea of knowing whether you’ll work five months from then, one year from then, two years from then. So you have to learn to budget your money and live very modestly I would say.
Ryan: The rhetoric around it reminds me a lot about the way anybody talks about any kind of well-paying seasonal labor. Like you can be a rough neck on oil rigs and it’s a very similar kind of culture where it looks like you’re being paid just a ridiculous amount of money, but then when you think about 25% of it goes to your agent, manager, lawyer, a bunch goes to taxes, it only gets paid out over six months, and then you’ll find out six months later if you get to work again for another year, you have to sort of save with an anticipation of disaster all the time.
So it’s not even like you really can enjoy that feeling of security because on the other side of it is a big unknown question mark. And so everybody sort of squirrels away anticipating the worst, which it kind of creeps into your psyche.
John: The example I gave was on a network show that is a 20-week show, but like so many shows these days are for streaming, they’re for cable, and there’s no guarantee you’re going to be that many weeks, you’re going to be at that rate. And one of the sort of WGA negotiations that has happened was about options and exclusivity. Basically when you finish a show how long can they hold onto you without paying you in case there’s another season of the show coming up? And so that is a huge factor in your ability to make a living as a TV writer. And so what was great money for Alison coming out as a first time staff writer would be a challenging amount of money for somebody with a young family. It’s a lot.
Alison: It’s why I don’t have a family. [laughs] No, I mean, the truth is I have friends who have kids and when I say to them I was up until three or four finishing a script, you know, they look at me slack-jawed. And then I think of oh my god what if I had to feed a kid, too. What if I even had to walk a dog? So, perhaps the most useful piece of information to someone listening to this podcast, and god I wish podcasts existed when I was first starting out, is that if you’re uncomfortable with the notion of instability, and Ryan just spoke to this, this life isn’t for you.
It just – I mean, Linda’s story is a perfect example of that. Because you would think no one has greater stability than someone who has a $50 million deal, with this proven track record, who was in demand. But she was yoked so severely by Les Moonves. And that was an exclusive deal I have to assume. So obviously that’s an extreme example. She had been very well paid for a long time. She earned all of the money from her shows that had been on the air.
But television is predicated on failure, even more specifically than any other area of show business. Perhaps theater. But you just have to assume that you’re not going to work for a long time. And that’s not catastrophizing. That’s being a realist. So, you have to be able to weather that storm emotionally, psychologically, and financially. And it never ends. You know, I’ve been doing this now almost 15 years. And when my room wraps in two months, less than two months, I don’t know what my next gig is going to be. So.
John: Crazy. Ryan Knighton, you’ve been doing this less than a year. On the whole how would you compare the experience of writing in TV versus writing in features? Did it make you want to do more TV or did it make you feel better about what you can do in features?
Ryan: It has really given me a taste for TV. I will say that. And I was joking in the room quite often that like there’s elements of working in TV that remind me of radio. And there’s elements of writing features that remind me of writing books. I mean, there’s that solitary isolated thing of novels and feature scripts. Whereas there’s such a much more social element in television and the process is incredibly social. It’s not just the nature of being in the room with the people, but the work gets done in a very socially collaborative way. And it’s kind of refreshing to be yanked from my basement after ten years and be put in front of people–
Alison: What were you doing down there?
Ryan: You know, just like doing the laundry and just hoping there was another gig around the corner somewhere. So, you know, I think like a lot of people in the business right now because there’s such a seismic shift in what’s being made in terms of features and that there is so much more being made in terms of television, and streaming and cable, that everybody has got their eyes on both sides.
You know, so many companies that I met with in the past that used to be just features all have TV sides now. So, I’m looking at it more. And the thing that I find is that it just asks a different kind of brain around your writing. And there’s a lot of really interesting puzzles that I just never encountered before. Like I was saying to my assistant this morning that with features you start with a blank page and a concept and a pitch or a piece of IP and you just sort of sky’s the limit go for it. You know, what is your best version of what this story could be if it was up on a screen.
And there’s so many decisions that have already been made about television before you start writing. You know, you have certain actors for a certain number of episodes and so you got to plan out a season that makes somebody drop away for three times and make sure if you can at least have two of those episodes back to back so they don’t have to fly back and forth. And you’ve got four standing sets and you’ve got only four days on those and four days out for every episode. So you can write the most amazing episode of that show but it can be completely unproducible. And so you’re writing with all these interesting constraints already in place.
And that’s not a thing I’d had to do before. So, it’s a cool new puzzle in that respect. So I would say I’ve got a taste for it now.
Alison: That’s maybe the greatest gift that TV gives you is it forces this discipline that you never would have been able to describe had you not been in it. But I think having a producer’s brain is something that most writers don’t have to have or adapt to if you don’t write TV, precisely for what Ryan said.
But once you have it, I think it makes you a better writer. It certainly makes you a more efficient writer.
John: But today enjoy. This is Aline Brosh McKenna, Rachel Bloom, and John Gatins.
We’re here to talk about the third season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. And so I remember about this time last year, I follow you on Instagram, and you had taped over the windows because you were getting started to figure out this season. So my question now is what were you guys talking about in that room with the papered-over windows? What was the plan?
Aline Brosh McKenna: What were the things that really stuck through?
Rachel Bloom: The thinking was how quickly do we get to the full revenge episode. We knew very quickly we wanted to do – in the pitch five years ago at this point it was always inherent that she was – we were going to play the promise of the premise somehow. She was going to become full fatal attraction crazy ex-girlfriend. The question was how long did that last and how long did we take before we got to that point. And I think that was the thing that we were talking about.
Aline: That was the main. And then balancing – you know, the thing about revenge, and I don’t know if you guys have ever tried to write a revenge movie, or if anyone has tried to write, revenge makes no sense. It just doesn’t make any sense. And then what?
John Gatins: It felt so good though.
Aline: But then it’s like Wah-Wah. So we were building towards that but we knew that there needed to be something else going on in the season beyond that. And also we knew we had owed for a long time figuring out what was really her issue and the diagnosis. So that was something that we were also talking about then and starting to do research. And our writer’s assistant at the time, who is now going to be a writer on the show, Alana is here, she was with us – and there’s usually a few songs that are like born in that first breaking room and there’s some that change a lot from there. But there’s usually a few things that are like “Oh that’s done. We’re going to do that.”
But I would say every year we’ve had like a midseason thing where some of the things were set and then some of the things needed to be re-broken. And we usually do a little bit of re-break, like a little bit of a retreat halfway through to kind of calibrate, recalibrate.
Rachel: Yeah, and the big thing, and usually there’s a point in every season, midseason, where Aline and I will go to her house and get naked and get in her hot tub together. This is 100% true. And we’re usually drunk or—
Rachel: On something. And we’ll come up with like, “Oh no, this is the kind of shot in the arm the season needed.” And so in season two that was she and Josh full on – spoiler alert – I may not, if you’re here, sorry, but the shot in the arm was, “OK, Josh is going to leave her at the altar.” Because there was a world in which – the way we always pitched season two—
Aline: Was that Josh was about to marry Valencia.
Rachel: And she was going to then – oh god, was this two or three? The original pitch was that he was about to marry Valencia. She didn’t stop him from proposing and then she was going to do some big grand gesture, like Say Anything gesture to win him back, but it was going to backfire and it was going to hurt – at the time we didn’t know his girlfriend’s name was Valencia. It was just his girlfriend and she’d break her uterus. That was in the pitch. It was like season three Rebecca breaks Josh’s girlfriend’s uterus.
John G: I’m trying to picture that in the hot tub naked.
Rachel: So we re-broke it. And then last season I remember being in the hot tub with you, naked—
John G: We’ve got to do this.
John A: Our writing process has been wrong this whole time.
Rachel: It’s great. Our bodies are so different, so we’re also both very fascinated.
Aline: I need parts that I waited for and never got.
Rachel: Oh yeah, but what I was going to say – sorry, I was thinking about Aline’s nakedness – the thing that we re-broke in your hot tub after – usually it’s hot tub after pasta, so we’re really not judging each other. It was last year was – we knew something was going to happen with – we had to get her – she was going to get in trouble with—
Aline: She was going to get in trouble and get in prison. She was going to be obsessed with Josh and Josh’s new girlfriend and that somehow was going to lead to her being in prison. But then in the middle of the season once the Josh thing had sort of burned brightly it seemed like it was over and we switched to Nathaniel. And then this idea of Trent as her id coming back and that that was the thing that really symbolized that she had, you know, burned through her revenge scheme, she was on her road to redemption, and then her mistakes come back to haunt her even though she’s actually doing the right thing. And there was an irony in that. And one of the things that you guys as feature writers will relate to is we pitched it in four parts, the series. The first season really is act one. The second season really is the first half of the second half. And last year as you guys know, we’ve talked about this on Scriptnotes, the second half of the second act is the rocky shoals. It is the hardest thing to right. It’s the cumulative thing to write. It has the most plot in it. So that gives you a sense of what season three is going to be, or season four is going to be which is the third act. So we have a lot of plot in last year, like more than we ever had. And there were times where Rachel came into the room and looked at the board and was like, “What’s happening?”
Rachel: Well because there’s always a point—
John G: The lowest point.
Aline: Yes. Bringing your character to its lowest point.
Rachel: But it wasn’t in those as much, I mean, that’s also a separate issue with me, the work schedule, which is I am in the writer’s room for the first two months and then we start filming and Aline is still running the writer’s room. And so then I’m reading outlines but also it’s on me to – I’m one of the three songwriters and it’s one me to – I’m the main person who supervises the edit of the music videos. I script out the music videos. So, around episodes let’s say six through 10 are when stuff is changing in the room rapidly. And so I’ll walk in and be like, “Whoa, Josh is a DJ? Oh, cool. Good for him. That sounds really cool.”
Aline: And it was hard because there was so much plot stuff that was happening as you said to bring her to her lowest point and how do you construct that. But there’s a very hectic part in the middle of the season around seven, eight, nine where we’re really tired and confused. And then it starts to – as the last few scripts are written we start to come up for air a little bit and there’s a song in the very last episode that Rachel and I wrote very calmly that first draft of, I mean, when I say wrote she wrote and I said half sentences, that ended up being one of the last songs in the last episode. So, that was a very long answer.
John A: So really broad strokes, and these are sort of like the fat marker on the whiteboard, the overall map. Now, you knew you were going to get to a revenge plot and eventually she was going to go full Glenn Close in it. But her first instinct after the wedding gets broken off she’s at a very low place, then she decides like, “Oh, I’m going to use my super power. I’m going to sue him.” And so there’s this idea at the start of the season like, “Oh, there’s going to be a lawsuit.”
Rachel: That was the hardest thing actually. I remember, I mean, I think what’s interesting in looking back at what we were doing exactly a year ago was the lawsuit was a great idea that we knew we were going to do that you had early on but the question was right after the wedding what is she doing.
Rachel: And can we share what originally happened?
Aline: They went to a diner?
Rachel: No, but then.
Aline: Oh yeah.
Rachel: So originally she goes to this diner with her friends and she’s like mad and they’re like, “Oh my god, what is she thinking?” And she’s like, “Will you just excuse me for one second?” And then she knocks on Nathaniel’s door and they fuck. Like literally the first second of the season. And then that’s part of the reason he’s been on the hook is like she came and fucked him and then left. And then there was this whole runner of like she got really freaky and she comes back to his apartment. She’s like “Take a shower. I need a clean work space.” And it was really dirty.
Aline: So that was in there for a long time and that was behind that newspaper. And I got to say the writers really hated that because they felt like it cut off all the opportunity for like the first time they slept together building to that. And there was a lot of resistance to that in the writer’s room. And I clung to it for a while. But there were so many other things going on in the beginning of that episode that we let go of that. She does a lot of awful things in the first third of the season. And then when they start to come out, she also has this giant dip so that the characters later will forgive her for that.
John G: So you guys create a show called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. When do you have this idea to explore BPD as a thing that’s going to arc itself out? And what was that conversation like?
Rachel: BPD didn’t come – BPD started to come kind of organically. I remember we started talking about it really in the second season. I definitely – I remember thinking it a lot in it was the third episode of the second season where she thinks she’s pregnant for a scene and goes in between these extremes. And BPD is very difficult to diagnose and it’s a very interesting disorder. And so we kind of knew that that’s where it was going. I mean, a lot of the things that we had the character do were kind of emotionally heightened versions of things that both Aline and I had gone through in our lives but very, very, very heightened and just kind of yes-anded. And the interesting thing about BPD is that’s what it is. It’s emotions that we all feel, it’s thoughts that we all have, just multiplied by a million. I mean, they say that if you have BPD it feels like you have emotional third degree burns all over your body. You literally have no emotional skin because your sense of self is not present, so you rely on the outside world to define who you are which is inherent in the premise of the show of someone who imagines themselves in different musical numbers to define who she is.
Aline: So what’s interesting though is we didn’t know that that’s what she had. We wrote it by feel. And the same thing happened with figuring out that Greg was an alcoholic. We just were writing that character, it was a thing that we had a pattern that seemed like it adhered to that character. And then we realized, oh, when we go back and do the checklist for alcoholic, Greg’s him. And when we went to do the BPD checklist it was stunning how much we had done that, but we hadn’t done that intentionally.
And I didn’t know anything about BPD until – Rachel knew stuff about it and had been talking to me about it sort of lightly for a while, but we didn’t really—
Rachel: I know people who have it.
Aline: And then we kind of delved into it and that’s what we had written. And I actually think it’s interesting because I think if we had written it knowing that that’s what we were going to do it might have been more forced and programmatic. But BPD people are the people who like – you know the friend that you have that does “crazy shit” and you call your other friends and you’re like, “You are not going to believe what this person has done.”
If you – the people that you know who tend to be – people call them crazy because they’re always stirring up stuff and they end up in weird – that’s her thing. She ends up in very weird situations because she’s lying and she’s freaking out and she’s over-dramatizing things, but not realizing these are all connected to one place.
John G: Was it scary or kind of exciting to be able to kind of push the tone really hard? You know, because it’s a show that like when you see the first season it’s so funny and so full of life and the music is amazing, the performances. It’s like you’re constantly laughing. And then as she devolves into this spiral it’s intense. Some of those–
Aline: Season three is—
Rachel: The show was always really dark to us, though. I mean, and I have spent a little bit of time rewatching some episodes of the first season, which is very weird to rewatch a show that you worked on but it seems like a new show because it’s been a couple years since I’ve seen it. And she’s quite ill. I mean, in that first season, in ways that I think at the time I didn’t even realize, but she’s really, really, really sick. And then the fact that Greg wants to fuck her and that’s like the only thing he can think about is like fucking this sick person. It’s really dark and disturbing.
And so I never thought of – the darkness of the show has always been inherent for both of us.
Aline: Yeah. I mean, I think because it’s a deconstruction of romantic comedies and you look at how people behave in romantic comedies, it’s psychotic. No, that’s a thing that we connected on which is the guy is outside in your yard and he’s got the boom box on. Like this is not OK. Stop fucking running to the airport. If you love somebody, you know, don’t lie about – and I had written obviously a lot of stuff where people are lying and scheming and it’s supposed to all be OK if you end up kissing. And in our very, very first conversations about the show that’s what we talked about which is like – and for me it’s rom-coms and for Rachel it’s also Disney princess stuff where what we sell to girls and women as appropriate behavior if it ends up with Prince Charming or in a kiss is like we excuse very crazy behavior.
So what’s interesting is because the first season is the first act it’s that rom-com cute stuff. And we always – you know how you guys when you write something they’re always like, “Make her likeable.” We always had it be someone else’s fault. And basically what happened over the course of the three seasons it’s like, “No, no, it’s her. She’s driving it.” And I will say when we wrote episode four of this year which is the full-on revenge episode we laughed and laughed. It was such a release.
Aline: It was such a relief. We wrote that.
Rachel: It was the episode we wanted to write.
Aline: Yeah. We wrote that over the weekend at my house and it was such a release to actually have her be stalking him and really go for it, because we had sort of been putting kid gloves on it, you know. And there is something – but a lot of the stuff people do, you know, if you go to people’s weddings now and you hear the toasts of how they met it’s like, “Well that’s not OK. He slept outside her house for – I think that might not be legal.“
Rachel: If you didn’t think he was hot you would have called the police. Because you were attracted you’re like, “That’s fine. That’s cute.”
John A: Talking about premise of the show, so it’s a woman who wants something so desperately she’s willing to uproot her life and move across the country. And the first two seasons we see her pursuing her wants. What’s so interesting about this season is she’s kind of stopped wanting and she just goes on defense. She’s so terrified, and so what we just saw with Paula is she’s lashing out at Paula and she’s using her special skills kind of for evil and for vengeance.
Rachel: She’s very smart. Yeah.
Aline: But she’s bouncing off the mound. It is late act two stuff. She’s grabbing at vines.
Rachel: Even in moments of being a villain she doesn’t know how to be a villain. She’s just trying to get her pain out. And I think that that’s been something very interesting to write for all these characters that even at their worst Aline and I we come at it from a place of empathy and compassion. And so it’s the reason people calling the show My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend really bothers us because it other-izes her. And unlike in Fatal Attraction where you know “the bitch must be killed,” that’s an example of someone with borderline, you know, the original ending of Fatal Attraction was her killing herself. And the audience felt unfulfilled because it made you feel sorry for her and you want the world to be black and white. But when people are acting villainous they’re terrified. They’re insecure and they’re upset.
John A: So reaching all the way back to, I think it was season one, I’m the villain of my own story, which was sort of the fairy tale version. And she imagines herself as that sort of dark villain. So she has some insight. She’s able at times to realize that this is a thing that I’m doing that is the wrong thing. How much does that factor into your decisions on a scene like this, her to understand what’s really happening in the world and this is her own feelings?
Aline: You know, I think it’s the special pain of her character, but it’s also the thing that makes you like her is that she knows she’s messing up. She always knows. No one is harder on herself that she is. And so when she’s doing awful things she is aware always. And if you know anyone who has a disorder, not even just BPD or something like this, when they are aware that they’re acting out and they can’t help it there’s just a special pain and empathy that you feel for that character because she does know that she – and that’s why I think in some ways one of the signature songs of the whole series is You Stupid Bitch, where she sings this very lacerating song about herself because she knows what she’s capable of.
John G: How many episodes? 44.
John G: And how many writers from the beginning?
Aline: All from the beginning. We’ve had the same writers since day one. We promoted two people. We have a very cohesive group. And one of the things that’s amazing about it is we have such institutional memory on our show. It’s incredible. It’s like this is a room that remembers every – they know and remember things that I don’t, that we don’t. They just know it so well. And when you have shows where people come and go you can’t create that as coherent a story. And they’ve just been steeped in it from day one. And everyone there will bring in bits and pieces of stuff or point out, “Hey, we can’t do that because we’ve done this already.”
And we work alone. You know, screenwriters work alone. We’re hermits. And John and I are friends because we hated being hermits and we created our own little writer’s room on the telephone when people used to talk on the telephone. We still do. But having that community of writers that understands this show and is helping us to guide us and give us feedback and say that’s crazy. And this suicide episode that Jack wrote, I mean, Jack brought such tremendous humanity and depth to the draft that he wrote. And we wept in the room, many of us, very frequently. You know, for me – Rachel is like a daughter to me, but Rebecca is, too. And the thing that always gets me about her is that she has hope. She’s a very hopeful character. It’s like, you know, she has a spirit of wanting to live and wanting to survive that like really, really moves me. So we wept a lot in the writer’s room.
John G: I’ve been to see you both in your room a few times. And I’m only now remembering that, yeah, it was exactly the same people every time I went. And I’m just thinking like that’s a really long season. No, it’s been many seasons. I just keep thinking like, “Oh, it’s Wednesday,” but you’re on another season. It’s this continuous thing. And the feeling in the room was very open. Like I didn’t know who was the boss. I didn’t know anything.
Aline: Well, it’s funny, I didn’t know. I think because I never ran a room before, so there are things that I learn. Like I don’t care who has the idea. And I didn’t obey any hierarchy. I didn’t think like, “Oh, if you had this title you should speak more or less.” That doesn’t make any sense to me. Why would you – so there were a lot of things about the way shows are run I didn’t know because I’ve never been on staff. And the staff taught us how – Rachel actually had more experience than I did. And the staff taught us really how to run the room. And some of the senior writers really helped inform that. But it’s just a glorious lucky thing to have a group of people that is so – you know, just to be in a room with ten intelligent, hilarious people while you’re creating something is – it’s so hard to go back to writing solo. It’s crazy.
John G: But I think it’s really unique that you have this writer’s room, as a guy who has been there, and you guys are there, and then you’re shooting the show on the other side of a wall. And you’re the star of the show. You’re in the writer’s room. You’re there. The writers go there. You’ve directed three episodes, right? It’s a pretty rare–
Aline: Also we really give the writers custody of their episode, like during the breaking and the writing of the draft obviously, the rewrite, the going onset, it always goes back to them. It’s their episode. And they guide it and they’re responsible for really keeping track of it. I mean, I’m thinking of the writers that are in the room, like Alana did episode six for us. It was her first episode. She was our writer’s assistant. The one right after this which deals with her diagnosis. And, I mean, she is like a Ph.D. level expert in Borderline because she read absolutely everything. And so when a writer is entrusted with an episode we take that very seriously. That is their episode to curate and they’re there for every second of it.
John A: You know, I think that merlot joke was so crucial because it’s a reminder that like the rest of the universe is still functioning, even though she’s pulled herself out of it the rest of the universe is still functioning. And in the next episode or the episode after we sort of see what the office is like without her there and how they’re all sort of desperate to reinsert her. But they’re just being crazy madcap the way they always would be and the universe is cycling on, which is also a factor for someone considering suicide is like either they want the universe to stop because they’re not going to be there or “No one is going to miss me if I’m gone.” And you’re able to sort of answer that question by seeing what the office is like without her there.
Rachel: Yeah, and I have to say in talking about the writing of this I – there are certain things that if I – if we’re talking about a certain idea and I don’t know about it, Aline will get a conviction in her eye and I know that her gut is right on a certain thing. And I have to say like it was her idea, the idea of that help sign turning into hope, and I couldn’t – on its face I was like I hope this isn’t schmaltzy. And then she was fucking right. It’s what you needed in that moment. And so things like that, things like tone, yeah, you can talk about them intellectually but I feel like the tone of the show in many ways is an emotional thing for us and is an instinctual thing for us.
And we wrote the pilot, we set the tone. The way we wrote that was basically kind of just line by line together in a room. I mean, we had an outline and we had songs. And so I think that it’s the reason we try to maintain the idea of humanely going beneath stereotypes is because this show is, yes, it’s intellectual but it’s very emotional. Sometimes it comes from our gut. And I want to point out a moment where Aline’s gut was just spot on and it really was a wonderful tonal thing for that episode.
Aline: And one thing I would say if you’re going to write with somebody, it’s great to have somebody who has – we have a lot of overlap in many things, but the skills we bring to the table are different. You know, I’ve been doing long form storytelling of a certain type for a very long time and Rachel’s background is different. The funny things is we both have – like I have an allergy to expected things on a story level because that’s what I’ve been practicing for a long time. And Rachel has an allergy to expected things because she’s a comedian and a sketch comedian and a songwriter and comes from animation. And she doesn’t like any stale or expected thing. And I would say if there’s one thing that we overlap on that is our most shared thing is the zigging.
You know, we really try to – and sometimes it’s hard to either get other people onboard or even to get each other onboard, but we both have a very strong – and in here the zig I felt strongly about taking was towards some celestial feeling of like this can be OK and that’s why we have the clouds and that’s why we have the blurry hope. But, you know, being partners and having a writer’s room is like listening to the conviction and sort of hearing like well that’s important but we’re going to continue to zig there.
Rachel: I also think it’s a testament to what technique is and what understanding – you have to understand structure and tropes and technique before you can break them. I mean, Aline comes from oftentimes writing these romantic comedies and she knows the structure so well. I come from musical theater knowing all of those tropes. And sketch comedy, when you learn sketch comedy, the way I learned it it was almost mathematical where it’s like, OK, well then there’s this beat and there’s this beat. There’s a weird – [cell phone rings] you should get that. I’m joking but I’m not. There’s a weird like rigidness sometimes, especially when you first start to learn sketch comedy. And so I think that knowing those structures and what’s expected and what’s trite and what you’ve seen and what’s stock has given us a real allergy to anything that feels like stock. But even then that’s a – because that’s why I thought maybe the help turning into hope might have been and it 100% wasn’t. And so it’s always this back and forth and this debate.
John: OK, it’s John again, back in September of 2021. In lieu of a One Cool Thing this week I want to give you a One Thing You Should Read this week, which is an article I’ve seen passed around a lot on Twitter and I think just a great conversation starter. It’s by Hannah Giorgis writing for The Atlantic. The title is Most Hollywood Writers’ Rooms Look Nothing Like America. What I love about this is it’s really looking back at the history of Black characters on television and the Black writers who were or too often were not writing those characters. It speaks to both how we got here but also the present day pressures of writers in these rooms who feel like they have to stand up for themselves not just as writers but for a whole group or class of people.
Just a really great overview. Definitely check it out. And that is the show for this week. As always Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Owen Danoff. If you have an outro you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. For short questions on Twitter Craig is sometimes @clmazin. I am always @johnaugust.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you find the transcripts and you can sign up for our weekly-ish newsletter called Inneresting which has lots of links to things about writing. And this week’s newsletter is especially good. So, do check it out.
We have t-shirts and they’re great. You can find them at Cotton Bureau. And of course you can sign up to become a premium member at Scriptnotes.net where you get all the back episodes and bonus segments like the one that Megana and I are about to do with leftover questions from our 10th Anniversary. Thanks. Enjoy.
Welcome premium members to the bonus segment of Scriptnotes. I’m sitting here with Megana Rao. Last week on the 10th Anniversary show we got a bunch of questions in. We answered some of them on the air, but a bunch more could not fit. Megana how many questions did we get in from premium members?
Megana Rao: Oh, the last time I counted we had over 150 and some more who have come in since then.
John: It’s always that flood of riches, where Megana will say like oh should we Mail Chimp out to the subscribers and we’ll get some good questions, but then so much comes in that it’s sort of hard to sort through it all.
Megana: But these were short and sweet, so they were pretty easy for me to sort through.
John: Yeah, they weren’t the – I’ve seen some of the novels that Megana gets in. So these were easier. But these ones were ones that I thought you and I could answer, so I figured without Craig being here this week you and I could tackle some of these. So let’s start with this first question from Lizzie.
Megana: Great. Lizzie asks, “I always wonder considering how busy your schedules seem to be how do you manage to record every week? How long does it actually take you to prep and research for each show?”
John: Great. So our schedule for Scriptnotes classically has been that we would record on a Thursday or a Friday. And to do that if a show is about an hour long our recording session is not much longer than that. Not a lot gets cut out of a show. But the prep has really increased over the years. I would say those very early episodes we were doing I was really kind of producing them myself and I would do 20 minutes, 30 minutes of work to sort of get stuff up and running, whereas you are doing a lot more prep leading up to one of these things. So talk us through the kind of prep you’re doing on a normal episode versus one that is a Three Page Challenge.
Megana: So for anything like a Three Page Challenge or How Would This Be a Movie or that Pitch or Spec segment we did with Ryan Knighton a few weeks ago that usually takes me about three days of work after we get all of the submissions in and sorting through them. And then I’ll try to come in with a list for you to then cull down beyond that. And then I’ll try to send that to you guys a day before we record.
John: Now we should stress that Craig has done very little work for this. So he will read all of the Three Page Challenges, but he’s not really looking at the document ahead of time.
Megana: Correct. But he does print them out and mark them up which I respect. And then whenever we have guests or do a deep dive and we’re going to be looking at pages or their scripts typically that’s actually you who will pick out the things that you’re really interested in and want to highlight.
John: Yeah. Whenever we have a guest on a lot of it becomes scheduling and figuring out whether we can make it work and what we’re going to talk about. And so I will have an hour or two of work to sort of get stuff prepped and sometimes it’s really just figuring out what is this episode even kind of going to be about. But then it really falls on Megana to get all those pieces together and make sure that we have the show that will actually fit together hopefully in an episode.
We should also talk about that’s the prep, but the post on an episode is really kind of more of your job. Because Matthew gets all of the audio and cuts it into an episode. But then you have to listen to the episode and prep it to be released and that’s a lot of your Monday generally.
Megana: Correct. Listening, writing the blog post descriptions, putting the chapter titles in. Yeah, putting it on all our different platforms. And then doing the premium feed and the standard feed.
John: The premium episode is really just the normal episode, but with the extra stuff on the end. We do that for simplicity so it’s just really the same thing with an extra thing. So you’re just getting the same normal episode with the extra stuff at the end because you are an awesome premium subscriber and thank you for being a premium subscriber. Next question we got.
Megana: Christine asks, “My question is about programming. How do you program what goes into each episode? Is there a master list of future episode topics that’s calendared weeks in advance? Or are you guys more on the fly and improvisational with programming so you can cover the news of the day? Maybe it’s a little bit of both?”
John: So right now we’re looking at the Workflowy and the Workflowy is our sort of master organizing document. And there will be a category of potential topics coming up. And so things like we should do an episode about this topic. But more often or not it’s just like Monday or Tuesday I’m talking with Megana like what should this week’s show be about. And in our staff meeting we’ll bat around some ideas for what the show should be about. And if we haven’t done a Three Page Challenge for a while or a How Would This Be a Movie we’ll cycle back to one of those. But if there’s stuff in the news that will tend to be a jumping off place. What happens a lot is something I’ll be working on, like some sort of craft situation I’m running into it’s like, oh, we haven’t done a show about this thing that I’m facing and that will become a centerpiece craft topic.
On your side what makes you excited about a given episode or a given thing? What works for you?
Megana: The only thing that I would add to that also is that we get really great listener questions in and so sometimes that will be the genesis of an episode or an idea. And then I think similarly if I’ve read something interesting in the news or if I’m running into an issue and I’m like I want to hear the two smartest guys I know talk about this I’ll try to incept an idea.
John: So the two smartest guys are like two other folks, but if you can’t get those two–
Megana: Exactly. Then I turn to you, to John and Craig. Exactly.
John: You’re also I know listening through the back catalog and sometimes that becomes a springboard for you were talking about this a zillion years ago but what is your take on this now.
Megana: Totally. Or like we recently rebroadcasted The Worst of the Worst and I was doing a revision on one of my projects and was like trying to create more conflict, and so I listened to it and when we needed to re-air something I was like this episode is great.
John: Cool. Question here from Matthew.
Megana: Matthew asks, “Do you find that recording the podcast and discussing the craft each week helps keep things fresh in your own writing?”
John: It definitely keeps me thinking about the writing. It keeps me aware of the fact that I am writing which is good. The struggle I’m having in the middle of this sentence is a common struggle shared by all writers doing their thing. But I don’t know that it necessarily changes too much of the work of it. I don’t feel like recording the podcast has had a big impact on the actual words that are down on the page.
Now you’re newer to writing, so do you think you find more influence between what we talk about on the show and what you’re doing?
Megana: Absolutely. And I think I’ll choose listener questions and things sort of based off of that, or colored by that perspective. But I guess I have a question for you. So you don’t have a writer’s group and when you write something I guess I’m usually your first reader, right?
Megana: But do you find talking it through with Craig helps unlock anything from you? Or are you kind of beyond that?
John: Well I’m not talking about the plot of it.
Megana: I guess not specifically.
John: I’m not talking about the plot but I’m definitely talking about the challenge I’m facing or a scene in which characters are in this weird place and that sometimes can be a thing that we would talk about on the show. So, yeah, I do think that helps a little bit because you’re recognizing like all the different ways you can address a certain situation. I do feel like there’s some benefit from that.
We often describe the show as being writer therapy and sometimes we’re just talking through the things that we’re facing. And Craig is probably even less explicit about the stuff he’s working on, but I do get a sense that there are times where he’s grappling with figuring out the overall arc of bigger things and all the conversations we’ve had about long form TV which he was not doing until recently, I think that has seeped into his brain somehow.
Megana: Interesting. I keep trying to pull the curtain back on your process and it’s like, no, you just spit out a fully formed beautiful idea every time. All right, so Owen asks, “On the podcast you and your guests often discuss and reference contemporary shows and films. It seems as though despite your incredibly busy schedules you’re always up on what’s being released and what’s coming soon. My question is do you make an effort to ingest new content in order to stay current on what’s being written? Or do you end up watching new releases simply because you love watching them? Finally, does that content ever make you feel pressure in regards to your own work, or are you beyond that as creators?”
John: You’re never beyond the feeling of pressure. Like, oh, I wish I would have done that, or I’m not up to that level. You never get past that.
I would say when I was back in film school I would try to watch every new movie that came out. And so Variety would publish each week the 60 top grossing movies and I would mark to see how many of the top 60 I’d seen. And I would at least have seen 20 out of 60, but generally 40 out of 60.
I’m nowhere near that level now and so I don’t sort of keep up with everything, but in terms of television I keep up with what are the watercooler shows. What are people on Twitter, or people that are on my Twitter are talking about because I want to be able to engage in that conversation. So, I may not watch everything, but I’ll certainly watch an episode or two to see what it is so I have some sense of what’s out there. And I think that is an important thing for anybody who is trying to write in this medium is to get an understanding of what other folks are doing out there and what the conversations are. Because those are the things you’re going to be talking about if you’re going into a general meeting someplace. What are you watching? What are you loving? What are things that are working for you?
You’re going out on some meetings now, too. Do you find you’re often talking about the stuff that you’re watching?
Megana: Yeah. And I think even before going out on generals, just living in LA you have to be up on that, otherwise you can’t socialize with people.
John: Well, it’s like if we were in DC you would be talking politics. If you were in Nashville you would be talking country music. It’s just the thing that we talk about here. And so it is natural. Even in this lockdown year the conversation still somehow gravitated around that.
Megana: Yeah, I guess because it’s the only thing people are doing.
John: Yeah. Thank you for these questions. Thank you for everybody who wrote in and overwhelmed Megana’s inbox.
Megana: Yeah, thank you for these thoughtful questions.
John: And it’s always nice to be able to reveal a little bit of the behind the scenes work here on the show. Thanks for being a premium member.
Megana: Thank you.
- Mindy Kaling on IMDb and Twitter
- Alison McDonald on IMDb and Twitter
- Ryan Knighton on IMDb and Twitter
- Aline Brosh McKenna on IMDb and on Twitter
- Rachel Bloom on IMDb and on Instagram
- John Gatins on IMDb
- Scriptnotes, Episode 362: The One with Mindy Kaling
- Scriptnotes, Episode 368: Advice for a New Staff Writer
- Scriptnotes, Episode 350: Limerance
- One Thing You Should Read: Most Hollywood Writers Look Nothing Like America by Hannah Giorgis writing for The Atlantic
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- Craig Mazin on Twitter
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UPDATE 9-22-21 Transcript for this episode can now be found here.